Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court and a pivotal swing voter in major court cases, passed away at the age of 93 on Friday in Phoenix. The court revealed in a statement that she succumbed to complications linked to advanced dementia, likely Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory ailment.
A decade after her retirement, O’Connor, who was nominated by then-President Reagan in 1981, disclosed in 2018 that she was stepping back from public life due to a dementia diagnosis. During her more than two decades on the Supreme Court, she emerged as an independent voice, occasionally aligning with the liberal faction and shaping many crucial cases.
Despite her initial personal opposition to abortion, O’Connor eventually authored majority opinions affirming the constitutional right to the procedure. She played a key role in the landmark decision supporting affirmative action in college admissions and was part of the 5-4 majority in Bush v. Gore, determining George W. Bush’s presidency in 2000.
Born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in Arizona, O’Connor served in all three branches of the state’s government before her tenure in Washington. She faced gender-based obstacles early in her legal career but eventually became a deputy county attorney in California, offering her services without pay. Breaking barriers, she went on to become the first woman to serve as majority leader in a state legislature in 1972.
After her service on the Maricopa County Superior Court and a state appeals court, President Reagan nominated O’Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981. Following more than two decades on the bench and serving as the court’s prominent swing vote, she announced her retirement in 2005 to care for her husband, who suffered from Alzheimer’s.
O’Connor’s successor, Justice Samuel Alito, replaced her after Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s death. Reflecting on her legacy, Chief Justice John Roberts praised O’Connor’s historic trailblazing and her commitment to the rule of law and civics education.
After leaving the bench, O’Connor became a leading advocate for civics education, founding and leading iCivics. Despite withdrawing from public life in 2018 due to dementia, her mission continues through initiatives like iCivics, with current justices actively participating in events.
Survived by her three sons, six grandchildren, and her brother, O’Connor leaves behind a lasting legacy as a trailblazer, defender of the rule of law, and advocate for civic engagement.